Interviews Series

Screen Sounds: Steve Jablonsky

Critically acclaimed composer Steve Jablonsky’s work can be heard in many of the biggest television shows and films in the past decade: A Nightmare on Elm Street, Keanu, Battleship, Deepwater Horizon, Gangster Squad, Desperate Housewives, and the entirety of the Transformers series are just a few of the titles he’s written music for.

Hi Steve! Thanks for talking with us. Tell me a little bit more about you and your background as a composer.

I’ve loved music and movies since I was very young, I played a few different musical instruments as a kid, but it wasn’t until after college that I starting thinking seriously about a career in music. I actually went to UC Berkeley to study computer science, but after a year realized that wasn’t for me so I switched to a music major. Initially I thought perhaps I could work as a recording engineer, so after school I started reaching out to various studios in Los Angeles. One of those studios belonged to Hans Zimmer. I had been a fan of his for years. I got a job as a runner there, eventually got a job with Harry Gregson-Williams. I learned so much about this business from Harry and Hans, they were both incredibly supportive. After a while I started helping compose cues on their films and eventually began scoring my own projects.

You’ve composed scores for many hit films, including the entirety of Michael Bay’s Transformers series. What was the creative process like while writing your score for Michael Bay’s final Transformers film, Transformers: The Last Knight?

I always try to start as early as possible. I met with Michael before he even started shooting. He showed me some amazing concept art and described some of the emotions he wanted for this film. I was very interested in the idea that Transformers are connected to the legends of Merlin and King Arthur, so I used that as inspiration as I wrote early themes. I would send these ideas to Michael and he would try using them in different scenes. It’s good to figure out your themes as early as possible. The themes are your musical language that you can then apply when the film is edited and ready to be scored.

What are some of the positives of composing a score for such a large film series? Are there any challenges throughout the process of creating a unique score for each Transformers entry?

For each sequel Michael wanted me to write new themes. He wanted each score to feel new, and honestly I loved that. It would be easy to reuse the same themes in every film, and I know some fans wonder why we didn’t do that. It’s because Michael wanted fresh ideas every time. So I started each Transformers film with a blank slate and composed all new themes. And then we would decide if and where we want to bring back old themes.

Are there any particular musical themes that you enjoy exploring in your film scoring work? If so, what are they, and where do they stand out?

Not really to be honest. I let each film inspire me in its own way. I try not to think about what I’ve done before, so I don’t look back very much. I try to give each film its own musical voice, its own musical sound, etc. I know a lot of people seem to really enjoy themes like “Arrival To Earth” and “My Name Is Lincoln”. It’s always very special and meaningful when people have such a positive reaction to something I’ve written. It gives me inspiration! But I don’t really have any favorites.

Your filmography credits span a vast range of genres—there’s horror, comedy, documentary, drama, fantasy, and more in your work. Is there a commonality among this wide variety of projects that draws you to work on them?

I just love movies, all types. I love the experience of being taken to a new place for a couple hours. Movies have the power to do that, whether the goal is to scare you or make you laugh or make you cry or make you learn or all of the above. And the music plays such a big part in this experience. I love making people jump in a scary scene or making people cry in an emotional scene. Whatever type of movie it is I want the audience to have the best experience possible.

What film has been the most thought-provoking to compose a score for, and why?

Good question! I think the films I’ve done that are based on true life stories are probably the most thought-provoking. I approach them in a slightly different way. For example Lone Survivor and Deepwater Horizon are both films that depict true stories where real people lost their lives. While I’m working on films like this I have to consider that the family and friends of these people will probably watch this movie. The last thing I want to do is “Hollywood-ize” the death of their loved ones. I try to be as respectful as possible with the music, approaching these scores with a more subdued tone than I would a purely fictional film. But I still want to give the audience an emotional ride so it’s a slightly different challenge, but also a very rewarding one.

When composing for a film, I’d imagine you are on a fairly tight timeline—with television series, I know it’s even tighter. How do you get past a creative roadblock, especially when you’re on a deadline?

It kind of depends on how tight your deadline is. If you must deliver something in two hours then you just do it, don’t think too much about it, whatever ideas come to mind just go with them. Fortunately I don’t find myself in that position too often. I have found that, for me, the best way to deal with being really stuck on something is to get away from it. Sleep on it if you have the time, almost always the roadblock will be clear in the morning. Or if you don’t have that much time maybe just take a walk or work on something else for a couple hours. Get away from it and clear your mind.

What is the most valuable piece of advice you’ve received in your career?

Wow I’ve been given so much great advice over the years it’s hard to pick one. I think trust your instincts is probably the best basic advice I’ve heard. When I’m writing a piece of music it MUST move me emotionally before I will play it to anyone else. If I’m not so sure about what I’m writing I’m convinced other people can hear that uncertainty in the music. Even if you think this might not be what the director is looking for, if the music is moving you it is worth pursuing. I’ve taken chances and done things that I thought the director might not like, but I like it so let’s give it a chance—then the director ends up liking it. Don’t second guess yourself too much, trust your own voice and you’ll probably be okay.

 Photo by Dan Goldwasser/

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